Tim Anderson’s BABIP breakout wasn’t all luck, so hop off your high horse and jump on the TA train

Regress this, buddy: Analysts anticipating a fall from grace from Anderson may be waiting a long time. (@TimAnderson7)


For a reigning MLB and American League batting champ, Tim Anderson has had too much slander slung his way.

All offseason, people have derided Anderson’s breakout year, considering it as more of a footnote because of what are still some obvious flaws in his game, and also because of BABIP. He even took exception with his MLB Top 100 player rankings which had him at 95 (yes, the batting champ at 95 makes total sense, MLB).

Now, the BABIP aspect aiding Anderson’s success is real. A .399 BABIP, second only to Yoán Moncada last season, certainly gave a boost to Anderson’s batting average. However, why do some fans assume Moncada made more actual improvements, even though he had a higher BABIP than Anderson? No idea, but the franchise shortstop did not run into a batting title by accident — not by a long shot.

To start, let’s knock out the elephant in the room when it comes to Anderson at the plate, he has never and probably will never walk at a frequency fans are comfortable with. His highest walk rate came in 2018, and that was only at 5%, while two of his MLB seasons saw walk rates in the bottom 1% of the league. At this point, with 7,678 pitches seen in 521 MLB games, it is time to come to the realization that walking is just not a part of Anderson’s game.

Now, what has improved with TA’s approach at the plate is the strikeouts: For three straight seasons, Anderson’s K-rate has fallen, reaching a career low of 21% last season. That’s actually a little bit better than the average MLB player.

Anderson’s whiff rate was down a little more than 3% from his 2018 season, primarily because of his success against the fastball and breaking pitches, though his whiff rate on off-speed pitches also fell. Like his overall K-rate, Anderson’s whiffs against the fastball and breaking balls have fallen for three years straight, but the big boost came in 2019 with the fastball. His whiff rate fell about 5% just against fastballs, which he saw 55.7% of the time last season — so that 5% drop is a significant number. The majority of that decrease in swing and misses for fastballs was actually outside the zone, as that decreased 11%. For the breaking ball, Anderson improved his swing and misses by a little more than 3%. The majority of those swing and misses came from inside the zone (11% drop), but the outside the zone whiff rate fell as well. All in all, it was a year of career bests for Anderson’s bat-to-ball skills … but this is also where things start to get a little murky.

Anderson’s overall contact rate rose to a career high 77% per FanGraphs; that is good for 77th out of 135 qualified batters. So, TA was not making an abnormal amount of contact compared to the league, but it was far and away a career high. Most, if not all fans, know that Anderson was late bloomer to baseball, so it makes perfect sense that it would take him longer to adapt to MLB pitching. It also makes sense that when everything came together for a former first round selection and Top 50 prospect, that player would be on top and doing this, a lot:

But again, contact isn’t everything. Some people just look at BABIP and stop, but if you do a bit more digging you’ll see that Anderson didn’t make more contact and strike out less because he was patient, but because he was reaching outside the zone and putting it in play more than ever. Anderson’s chase rate has always been more than average, but in 2019 it was an absurd number: 45.2% per FanGraphs, which was fifth-most among qualified batters. Anderson swung a lot out of the zone, but unlike previous seasons his contact rate on those pitches was not severely underwater. His outside-the-zone contact rate was at a personal high of 61.5%, but this is nowhere near an abnormal amount of contact compared to the rest of MLB. In fact, his rate was 91st out of 135 hitters, still less than average.

Where it gets murky is the way fans want to read that. One way to look at it is to say, wow, after starting to play baseball late into high school, Anderson the former first round pick is now able to track pitches better and make contact even when outside the zone, and he still has room to grow. The other, more dour way to view this is to concentrate on the increased chase rate and chase contact rate as a bad habit for a professional hitter — that 2019 was an aberration because the jump was high. The frustrating part about those conflicting views is that they are both right.

But Anderson still improved mightily in other areas.

Though his BABIP was high, Anderson still had very good expected stats. His expected batting average was in the top 8% of the league and expected slugging was well better than average. Anderson made more good contact than ever before, and the power coming off that contact was at a personal high. His ISO was at a career-high .173 and if he had played a full season’s worth of games, he would have reached a career-best in homers. Anderson’s hard-hit rate reached a new career high and his xWOBA on contact was well better than average. So while a .335 batting average was probably an outperformance of the underlying stats, overall Anderson was hitting the ball more often, harder, and better than ever before. He showed real improvement, and where the major improvement came in terms of contact is even more inspiring.

Anderson, for his first three seasons, was awful against breaking pitches. He just couldn’t hit them and when he made contact, they were outs way too often. When going up against off-speed offerings, Anderson had a .308 average going into the 2019 season, but he couldn’t put any power into those pitches, with just one home run hit off that pitch group. Meanwhile, Anderson was doing very well against the fastball, even compared to league average, but his success at the plate hinged too much on that group of pitches. Most of his ISO came from fastballs leading up to 2019, but the batting average did dip during 2018 against fastballs. All of these slights improved at the same time for Anderson in 2019, as they did for Moncada.

 

 

chart (18)

Anderson hit .350, a career high, and slugged .514 against fastballs in 2019; he hit .310 and slugged .449 against breaking pitches, both career highs; and he hit .352 and slugged .685 against off-speed pitches, again, both career highs. Though Anderson’s expected stats are worse (though not as much disparity as I guessed, especially on the fastball), all three pitch groups amounted to career highs in xWOBA, as you can see in the graph above.

Maybe people find it harder to accept Anderson’s success compared to Moncada’s because TA is a White Sox draft selection and those players rarely do well. Maybe his many errors overshadow how good a hitter he was. Maybe how fantastic Avisaíl García was in his fourth season with the White Sox in 2017 is a coincidence that is freaking fans out.

But all of this is true about Tim Anderson:

  • Anderson did not start playing high school baseball until his Junior season. His “only offer” to play baseball was to East Central Community College.
  • He worked himself, in just two full seasons of high school baseball and two years at junior college, into the 17th selection in the 2013 draft.
  • During his time in the minors, from the months after he was drafted in 2013 to before was promoted to the Chicago in 2016, Anderson excelled at every level. By the time he was called up, Anderson was a Top 50 prospect and was even rated 19th by Baseball Prospectus.
  • After three seasons in the majors, two of which were not good by any stretch, something clicked. While swinging more often than ever before, Anderson made more contact. While his swings outside the zone hit a new personal high, his chase miss rate hit a new low. While his walks were almost cut in half, his strikeout rate fell below an average hitter’s rate for the first time. While his fly ball rate went up and ground ball rate went down, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates both hit career highs in 2019.
  • Meanwhile, Anderson was also spraying the ball all over the diamond. He went with pitches where they were thrown, pulled when he needed to and went away when it was called for, and if he could, he went right back up the middle (41.4% of the time, a true sign of a good hitter). All of this shows a hitter who has a much better eye than he did just four years ago, even if the walks are not there.

A .399 BABIP is hard to repeat and Anderson most likely won’t, and he also most likely will not win another batting title. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t show real, legit improvement in 2019.

Then again, nobody thought Anderson would win a batting title in the first place. But what fans can agree on is that Tim Anderson is making baseball better.

Four under-the-radar, early-season storylines

Where the magic happens: Our newest writer will be covering March 2’s White Sox action from this vantage point, so if you’re at Camelback, say hi! (Chicago White Sox)


I just had wrist surgery and am typing with one hand, so I don’t really feel like writing out a long intro, but the title is pretty self-explanatory. Here are four things I will be watching during Spring Training and the early months of the season.


Reynaldo López’s offseason adjustments

This is the least “under-the-radar” storyline of the four, but that is because it’s also probably the most important to the White Sox’s success.

López has been a very polarizing player for the White Sox. In 2018 he showed a lot of promise, finishing with a 3.91 ERA in his first full season in the bigs. However, his advanced stats showed that these results may have been smoke and mirrors.

Reynaldo has always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher. In 2018, López benefited from the ninth lowest rate of home runs to fly balls of all qualified starters, a number that tends to regress to the mean over time. His xFIP (expected ERA assuming average outcomes on balls in play and an average HR/Fly Ball ratio) was 5.22 in comparison to his previously-mentioned 3.91 ERA, the largest gap in baseball. Additionally, the spin rates on both his fastball and breaking pitches were near the bottom of the league. Sure enough, all of this caught up to López in 2019. Despite some encouraging outings, the season as a whole was a major step back, as he had one of the worst ERAs in baseball.

In 2019, López was trying to work his breaking pitches off of a high fastball, the “hot new trend” in the juiced-ball 2019 season. For guys like Lucas Giolito, who have a fastball with above average carry and a high-spin breaking ball, this philosophy is great. However, López has a low-spin fastball with a great deal of horizontal movement.

To become a solid major league pitcher, significant changes will be needed to either López’s mechanics or pitching approach. López and Don Cooper have talked about getting less rotational and more linear in order to drive the ball to the plate, generating carry rather than horizontal run. If López was able to accomplish this in the offseason, he may be able to survive as a high-fastball guy. If not, however, he may need to embrace the low-spin fastball rather than fighting it, and work on sinking and cutting the ball.

Ultimately, López may end up as an impact bullpen arm, where his stuff will play up and he will likely be able to work in the 98-100 mph range rather than the 95-98 range. However, he will be given every chance to prove that he belongs in the rotation. One thing that will be helpful for a fly ball pitcher like Lopez is the rumors of a more “normal” baseball for 2020. I have no doubt that López, an outstanding competitor, went back to the drawing board this offseason. I am interested to see his outings this spring to get a look at what that offseason work entailed.


Right field: Nomar Mazara, or platoon?

Rick Hahn and Ricky Renteria have already said they see Nomar Mazara as more than a platoon player and plan to use him as the everyday right fielder. A breakout definitely could be on the horizon, as a change of scenery could be exactly what the 24-year-old former top prospect needs to unlock his massive potential. However, over the course of his career, Mazara’s numbers against left-handed pitching have been subpar. Barring a breakout, the better option may be to keep Mazara as the strong half of a platoon, sitting him vs LHP in favor of Adam Engel or Leury García (likely pushing Luis Robert over to right field). Based off of 2019 statistics, both Engel and García had much more success versus LHP than RHP. As Mazara is still so young, the potential for a breakout is definitely there. I am as hopeful as anyone, but at worst, this route would set everyone up for success.

Not only would Engel be a huge upgrade to our outfield defense on days he plays, but based on 2019 numbers, this platoon would generate a .820 OPS overall (Mazara .821 vs. RH starters, Engel .819 [109 ABs] vs LH starters). Keep in mind, these splits are for the entire game when the starter was right or left-handed, so they don’t take into account opportunities to pinch-hit based on reliever match-ups. The .820 OPS estimate for the platoon would have ranked in the top 30 among all MLB outfielders, ahead of many of the offseason possibilities White Sox fans were mad about missing out on (Marcel Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, Andrew Benintendi). When the Mazara/Steele Walker trade happened, the majority of the reaction was negative. However, in 2019 Mazara had a .786 OPS at age 24 in his fourth MLB season, whereas Steele Walker had a .771 OPS at age 23 in Single-A. The trade was a low-risk, high-reward move. If this platoon is the worst case scenario, I will take it every time.


James McCann Framing Improvements

James Fegan came out with a great article a few weeks ago on the offseason work that James McCann has done with highly-regarded catching coach Jerry Narron to improve his framing skills. While White Sox pitchers have lauded McCann for his ability to handle a staff, scout opposing hitters, and control the game behind the plate, they are also losing quite a few strikes per game because of his terrible pitch framing numbers, specifically side-to-side and low in the zone. Now, the White Sox have Yasmani Grandal, who graded out third of 64 qualified catchers in Statcast’s catcher framing metric in 2019 (this same metric ranked McCann dead last).

We should be able to gauge relatively quickly if McCann’s offseason work has paid off. Spring training will give us a glimpse, and we should have enough data to see where his metrics are after a few months of the regular season. This could be the difference between being a backup catcher who only generates a spot start here or there vs. being the weaker half of dynamic catching duo. I, for one, don’t think Giolito needs McCann as his “personal catcher,” but it would definitely be easier to work a defensively improved McCann in for Giolito’s starts. An improvement would also allow Renteria a much greater deal of lineup flexibility to keep veterans fresh for the entire season. For example, he could give José Abreu, Edwin Encarnación, and Grandal a day off every 10 games or so, leaving McCann to catch roughly two or three of every 10. When EE sits, Grandal (or McCann) could DH, and when Abreu sits, EE could play first and Grandal would slide to DH.


Can Kelvin Herrera Rebound?

I know what most of you are probably thinking: Kelvin Herrera is WASHED UP. I was as frustrated as anyone that our proven, lockdown free agent bullpen signing was unusable in close games for the majority of the season. Herrera posted the third-worst ERA (6.14) of all MLB bullpen pitchers with more than 50 IP.

Doesn’t sound like the stat line of a guy you want to be counting on in 2020, right?

Not so fast. There is still reason for optimism. 

Herrera’s massive struggles in 2019 can really be attributed to two issues.

The first was injury, as Renteria and Cooper were quick to blame foot and back injuries for a portion of Herrera’s 2019 struggles. Because Herrera never spent an extended period of time on the IL and consistently made appearances throughout the season, it was tough to buy that from the outside looking in. However, both the stats and the data seem to bear out the fact that Herrera may have actually been significantly affected by the Lisfranc and back injury for the majority of the season.

Here are Herrera’s numbers prior to May 5, when the back injury occurred: 16 games, 16 ⅓ IP, 2.76 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 16 K

Here are his numbers after August 22: 15 games, 15 ⅓ IP, 1.76 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 19 K

These numbers seem to support the theory that Herrera may have dealt with lingering injuries for the majority of the season and finally started to get healthy late. When I looked at Statcast data to see if anything supported this, one thing jumped off the page at me.

So, the No. 2 with Herrera was release point inconsistency. Baseball Savant has a really cool visual that outlines the various release points for all pitches thrown. The smaller the spread of release points, the more similar all pitches look when coming out of the pitcher’s hand. This makes it easier for the pitcher to create a “tunneling” effect with the pitch and keep the hitter from identifying what’s coming and squaring it up.

Looking at the best pitchers in the game, such as Gerrit Cole or Kirby Yates, their release point chart is a tight circle. In 2019, Herrera’s was ALL over the place. Baseball Savant even noted it was “very erratic,” a characteristic I didn’t see noted for any other pitcher. Here are the visuals for Herrera and Yates for comparison:

If a pitcher is favoring certain parts of his body or trying to compensate for injury, his mechanics will undoubtedly be affected. There is no way that a healthy pitcher’s release points would be this erratic. A healthy Herrera in 2020 should be able to tighten this up.

Herrera also started to use a Don Cooper special, the cutter, a lot more effectively towards the end of the season. He gained three inches of movement on his cutter in September compared to the rest of the season. If that continues, it could be an effective way to combat his slight velocity decrease. Herrera’s average exit velocity against was actually in the 93rd percentile in all of baseball in 2019, which is shocking considering his results.

Bold prediction for the 2020 White Sox season: Herrera will post an ERA of less than 3.00 and be a useful piece in the late innings.

————–

I’d love to hear your opinions on these four storylines, and any more that you will be following.

I’ll be attending the Sox/Padres game in Glendale on March 2. The header photo for this article was taken from my seat for the game. If you are down there and see a 24-year-old kid with a black cast on his arm, say hi.

Lastly, here is the link to a 2020 White Sox hype video I made a few weeks ago, in case you weren’t excited enough about the season. Thanks for reading, and go Sox!

2020 White Sox Hype Video


This article was originally a Fanpost on South Side Sox.

 

Reynaldo López: now or never

Should he stay or should he go? Without solid secondaries, López won’t just fall out of the rotation — he could drop off of the major league roster entirely. (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)


Reynaldo López got off to a rocky start during the 2018 season, but his numbers down the stretch were why people expected big things from him in 2019.

In 33 September innings in ’18, he had a 1.09 ERA that was validated by a much better walk and strikeout numbers as well as a 2.74 FIP. Now, there was still cause for concern if you looked at expected stats, but López still seemed to be moving in the right direction; some even thought he was the better option compared to Lucas Giolito. López’s off-speed pitch was working and a much better slider was getting whiffs.

Then 2019 happened.

As Giolito had a breakout, All-Star season, López faltered, only periodically showing his great potential. His fastball was still fast, but his second and third pitches lost their luster and were inconsistent at best. Among the 104 starters with at least 120 innings pitched, López had the 14th-worst FIP and fifth-worst xFIP — just about as bad as Giolito was in 2018.

López does not have that one elite pitch, but he does have that fastball that’s in the 83rd percentile in velocity. He used to have a curveball, but seems to have lost that pitch to history. In terms of a new breaking pitch, it’s down to the slider, and López will work in an at-best below-average change from time to time.

Now, for some good news: Because López uses so few pitches, and the fact that they are inconsistent, he is a prime candidate for a “Giolito breakout.”

Let’s use something simple: López’s performance in wins and losses. In 25 starts, the White Sox won 10 times and lost 15. Obviously, a pitcher will have better stats when he wins a game, but for López, those stats show just how good and how bad he was.

In wins, Lopez had a 1.36 ERA, a WHIP well short of 1.000, and only allowed four homers in 66 ⅓ innings. He looked like this during his wins:

Meanwhile in losses, López’s ERA was 9.58, he allowed an OPS over 1.000, and surrendered 23 homers in just 72 ⅓ innings.

This discrepancy is why fans are so torn over López: Some think he is a future stalwart in a rotation, while others think he should move to the bullpen. When López is good, boy is he good — and when he is bad, he is one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball.

There is a wide spectrum when it comes to López, but funnily enough, he does not do much better against winning teams than losing ones. So his fantastic performances of 2019 do not necessarily only come against bad opponents. In fact, his best start per FanGraphs game score (96) was against Cleveland.

When on the bump against winning team last season, he had a 5.96 ERA, and then a 4.78 ERA against losing teams. That is more than a one-run difference, and López did have a much better strikeout rate against losing teams, as one should expect. But that doesn’t tell the full story.

López’s OPS against winning teams (.828) and losing teams (.838) was basically the same. That was because López allowed more homers against bad teams than he did with good teams. The most likely reason why the runs allowed were more than one fewer is because bad teams are, well, bad: They do not get on base, so a big hit does not cause as much damage.

That is why when you look at López’s advanced splits, the tOPS+ (OPS for split relative to player’s Total OPS per B-Ref), is exactly even (100) … or evenly bad might be the better way of articulating it. Then, when you look at those splits compared to the entire league, López looks very bad. Against winning teams, López was 11% worse than average; against losing teams, he was 29% worse than average in using sOPS+ (OPS for split relative to League’s split OPS). Unfortunately, a lot of that bad pitching against losing teams came from AL Central.

Overall, against the division opponents the White Sox saw and will see more than any other, López combined for a 5.04 ERA. Compared with the entire league, he was also only better than league average against one AL Central opponent, Cleveland.  For the rest of the division, López was not just kind of bad, he was atrocious compared to the league. In terms of sOPS+, he was 76% worse than league average against the 59-103 Royals, 50% worse against the Twins, and 35% worse against the 47-114 Tigers.

Now, maybe one could say that division opponents should know opposing pitchers the best, but a pitcher also needs to have success in the division to be considered a success. There is a troubling notion, though, that carries over to other stats: Batters who see López the most do much better compared to other pitchers.

It is even true when you look at it in a game-by-game basis. Now again, the third time through the order is supposed to be when pitchers start to falter. By then, batters have seen everything an opposing starter has to offer and are more or less ready for what the pitcher will throw. So of course, when batters hit against López the third time through the order, they are his worst numbers. That is not news. What is news, and what should worry fans, was that he was 29% worse than the average pitcher going through a lineup for the third time in a start. 

In 212 such plate appearances in 2019, batters slashed .298/.373/.548 for a .921 OPS. For comparison’s sake, in 2019, Yoán Moncada had a .915 OPS and Sox fans wore more than overjoyed with how great an offensive season he had. So that’s not good for López.

These stats show that when batters see López a lot, whether in a single game or over a season, they punish him. And that points to the fact that maybe being a starter is not what López is cut out to be. In fact, much of the reason López had a better 2018 compared to 2019 was his weird success going through the order the third time. In ’18, his best splits were against batter the third time through the order, as it was 48% better than league average. However, when that sregressed to the mean in 2019, López had an awful season. Not coincidentally, 2018 was a year where López’s change and slider were actually working well; that was not duplicated in 2019, thus his troubles the third time through the order.

López does not have a real breaking pitch, nor does he have a consistent off-speed offering. So it makes sense that López relies on the fastball about 60% of the time … but a starter can’t do that. A starter cannot just throw past batters all day long and hope 27 outs come, or all year long and hope for All-Star appearances, without a reliable second pitch and at least an average third.

So, fans say, let’s move López to the bullpen; his fastball should play well there and his inconsistencies with other pitches won’t be a glaring problem:

Well, be careful what you wish for. In three of López’s four seasons in the majors, he has has been worse than average compared to the league against hitters the first time through the order. Last season, he was 30% worse than average and allowed nine first-inning home runs, so maybe just throwing López in the bullpen won’t be as successful as some think. Which is also why answers like these are confusing:

Yeah, more spin on his fastball is great, especially because, according to Baseball Savant, López’s fastball spin rate was in the 22nd percentile. So increasing his fastball spin rate will lead to more strikeouts. But López needs to find another pitch, preferably two, that can at least be above-average to help him get through six innings. Maybe he should have Giolito show him some changeup grips and Syndergaard can give López his slider back. If López can’t develop his secondary pitches, then that increased spin rate on his fastball will mean more if he’s in the bullpen.

To López’s credit, at least he realizes his spot in the rotation is not guaranteed:

and he has a lot of pitchers, young pitchers, hungry and ready to take that spot.

It’s now or never, Reynaldo.

Filling the gap at the second sack

Slugging stopgap: The White Sox need a second baseman. Brian Dozier remains unsigned. Still time before position players report, Rick. (@TwinsPics)


Who ultimately mans second base on opening day for the Chicago White Sox remains a mystery. Going into a season ripe with playoff expectations, relying on Danny Mendick and Leury García for significant contributions seems foolhardy, however.

Who would be the best second baseman for the South Siders in 2020? Let’s take a look at some of the top candidates.

Leader in the clubhouse

Danny Mendick‘s table may in fact be ready, which is puzzling given his sparse usage down the stretch in 2019. There was seemingly plenty of playing time available, but manager Rick Renteria only felt it necessary to grant Mendick 40 major league plate appearances.

Selected in the 22nd round of the 2015 draft out of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the 5´10´´, 190-pounder was the definition of a late bloomer and wasn’t even confident that he’d be drafted at all. Mendick’s father has a successful career in commercial real estate, and the infielder was always falling back on that potential option.

White Sox area scouts are generally on the prowl for traits in the latter portion of the draft’s third day. Mendick could play all three infield spots and was considered to be a smart player who was pretty technically sound, with some ability to hit. The scouting department and player development staff never expected Mendick to be a legitimate big league option for 2020, but sometimes organizational depth overachieves when provided an opportunity.

Mendick hit .308/.325/.462 with two homers in a small major league sample in September. He was also pretty solid in spring training, generating some chatter that he make the 2019 squad to start the season. Mendick ultimately returned to the Charlotte Knights and hit .279/.368/.444 in the International League with 17 homers and a 109 wRC+.

The 26-year-old was added to the 40-man roster last year and protected from being included in the Rule 5 draft. Mendick was also a prominent member of the group that took part in the Soxfest festivities in late January. The organization is clearly a fan of Mendick’s potential, so it was quite puzzling that he didn’t receive more playing time to close out his first taste of the majors.

Internal threats

Leury García is back with the White Sox on a one-year deal, and the versatile switch hitter is capable of playing multiple positions. García was the primary leadoff hitter last season and played in 140 contests. Leury was over-exposed in that role, however, and his flaws were very much at the forefront. The 28-year-old hit .279/.310/.378 with eight home runs, but just an 83 wRC+. He was worth 1.3 fWAR mostly due to his versatility.

García was first acquired by the organization back in 2013, in a swap with the Texas Rangers for outfielder Alex Rios. The 5´8´´, 180-pounder can play every infield spot as well as center field and the outfield corners. He strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough (3% BB rate), and he’d be miscast in a starting role once again. García is ideal (and more than capable) as a utility player, and that’s what his likely role will be. He is a candidate to start the season as the starter at second base, but he could also spell Nomar Mazara in the outfield in addition to his infield responsibilities.

Long shots

In some years, there are interesting non-roster invites with a legitimate chance at stealing a roster spot; this won’t be one of those years. For starters, 34-year-old utility man Andrew Romine will take part in big league spring training. The switch-hitter plays all over the diamond and spent the 2019 season in Triple-A for the Phillies. He’s a decent fit as minor league depth, but likely won’t challenge for a roster spot. Former Royals top prospect, 27-year-old Cheslor Cuthbert,will be in Glendale as well. The infielder has really struggled offensively and is unlikely to be more than a placeholder at Charlotte.

The elephant in the room

The ghost of Nick Madrigal can also be described as the elephant in the room. The fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft is the second sacker of the future, and his ascension could begin on March 26 against Kansas City. The Oregon State product will be 23 on Opening Day and projects as an elite defender at second base. In 2019, Madrigal hit .331/.398/.424 with a 117 wRC+ with the Charlotte Knights in Triple-A. He also hit .341/.400/.451 with a .391 wOBA and 150 wRC+ in Double-A with the Birmingham Barons.

If Madrigal starts the year in Chicago, second base is solved. This course of action would be the preference of many members of the fan base and media, but it doesn’t appear to be the most likely outcome on Opening Day. The 5´7´´, 170-pounder will receive plenty of run with the big league team during spring training. Service time questions aside, Madrigal could benefit from some more seasoning in the International League if the organization chooses to go that route.

External options

There are still some veteran infielders on the free agent market who could potentially help the White Sox in 2020. As GM Rick Hahn has mentioned publicly, it might be tough to land a quality player with Madrigal waiting in the wings. It’s not completely out of the question, though. Brian Dozier, Brock Holt, Brad Miller, Jason Kipnis and Ben Zobrist are names that fans have heard before.

Dozier is familiar with the AL Central and would conceivably fit right in with the White Sox. The 32-year-old posted 1.7 fWAR with a 99 wRC+ in 135 games with the Washington Nationals last year and  compiled 19 fWAR during 2014-17 with the Twins. While his overall stat line isn’t overwhelmingly exciting, the right-handed hitter did some serious work against southpaws. The 5´11´´, 200-pounder hit .280/.375/.525 with a 128 wRC+ and .373 wOBA vs lefties in 2019. Dozier has an immense amount of playoff experience and would theoretically be stellar in a backup role as well.

Holt is a cult hero in Boston and could easily return to the Red Sox. He’s been linked to some teams, but hasn’t quite found a deal to his liking. The 31-year-old has very little power but slashed .297/.369/.402 with a 103 wRC+ in 2019. The 5´10´´, 180-pounder hits from the left side and posted a 119 wRC+ vs righties last year. He’s one of myriad options for the White Sox and could contribute to the 2020 club in multiple ways.

Miller is 30, and has played on multiple teams. He was a fairly well-regarded prospect at one time and had a solid season with the Phillies in 2019. The 6´2´´, 215-pound infielder hits left-handed and posted a 126 wRC+ last year. Miller hit 13 home runs and can play all over the infield.

Kipnis is a native of Northbrook and reportedly has drawn interest from the Cubs. The 32-year-old left-handed hitter has struggled in recent years, including a 1.1 fWAR in 2019 with an 82 wRC+. Kipnis was better vs. righties, with a wRC+ of 91, and he did smack 17 long balls.

It’s unclear whether the 38-year-old Zobrist is interested in playing baseball in 2020, but he’d be a potential roster fit if willing. The Eureka native missed most of last season, but can hit from both sides of the plate, play multiple positions and has an array of playoff success.

Likely outcomes

The best outcome for the White Sox sees Madrigal being penciled into the lineup on March 26. Out of all the possible scenarios, though, this one seems the most far-fetched. It would likely only come with a signed contract extension, despite Madrigal not being in the class of players where future service time hangs over the franchise. The organization wants to see him succeed in Charlotte prior before making his big league debut. The marketing department would surely benefit from the crowd on the night of another prospect debut as well.

While Spring Training statistics are often meaningless, Madrigal’s stat line will be pored over from his first start in Glendale. But at this juncture, it seems as if Mendick is the likely Opening Day second baseman, as García’s presence on the club is valuable but not so much as an everyday player in the infield. And don’t forget, Dozier has been linked to the White Sox at points during the offseason, and he remains unsigned.

With Madrigal’s eventual arrival not imminent, Dozier seems like the best realistic outcome prior to the start of Spring Training. Adding a veteran to the mix is still possible — but if not, it appears that second base on the South Side should be in good hands for the foreseeable future.

 

Potential White Sox lineups for 2020

Crazy 88: With Luis Robert now expected to be on this year’s Opening Day roster, the offense should be absolutely lethal. (@KnightsBaseball)


Thanks to the extension of potential superstar outfielder Luis Robert, the Opening Day roster looks relatively set — at least on the offensive side. That’s not to say that there’s a bit of uncertainty, as the White Sox could still pursue a second base option in case the team feels Nick Madrigal isn’t quite ready for Opening Day. Also, the possibility exists for a right-handed platoon for Nomar Mazara in right field (Hunter Pence, Kevin Pillar or Yasiel Puig may make some sense there, if they’re willing to accept a platoon scenario). While Madrigal may receive a preseason extension, chances are the White Sox pass for now, due in part to his lack of power potential.

Anyway, here’s what this Sox fan would like to see (assuming that Madrigal does make the Opening Day squad) versus righties and southpaws.

Lineup vs. righties

(1) Nick Madrigal — 2B. Perhaps I’m a little old school, but I prefer my leadoff hitters to run like the wind and see enough pitches to work the opposing pitcher’s counts. Enter Madrigal. In the minors, he slashed a terrific .325/.395/.407 against righthanders in 2019. He obviously knows how to handle the bat, and isn’t afraid to hit with two strikes because of his impeccable ability to make contact. Infield defenses will likely play him to bunt, which could free up numerous opportunities to poke base hits through the infield. Sure, Madrigal’s walk total (44) last year wasn’t all that impressive; however, he still would’ve led last year’s White Sox squad with that number if he wouldn’t have played in the shortened minor league schedule. Expect Madrigal to walk a bit more with experience as he acquaints himself with each pitcher.

(2) Yasmani Grandal — C. This actually was a difficult call for me, as I was toying putting Yoán Moncada here. Grandal’s OBP (.372) versus righties was similar to Moncada’s, but Moncada owned a significantly higher slugging percentage versus righties than Grandal. Thus, I’d prefer to see Moncada in a lineup position where he could drive in more runs. Grandal makes an excellent No. 2 hitter here with his .372 OBP and .441 SP, and as evidenced by his 109 walks last year, he’s willing to take pitches that would allow Madrigal more opportunities to steal bases.  

(3) Eloy Jiménez — LF. The easy choice would be to go with José Abreu here, but his numbers last year simply didn’t stack up to those Jiménez compiled against righties. Jiménez provided far better offensive numbers against righties (.270/.313/.535) than the veteran first baseman, and his 31 homers despite missing 40 games show he should be a force for quite a long time. While he struck out at a high clip last year (134), Jiménez did improve as the season went along and has a history of adapting and learning from mistakes.

(4) Edwin Encarnación — DH. Despite missing essentially one-third of last season due to injuries, Encarnación still managed to club 34 homers and knock in 86 runs. He did strike out his fair share (103), but posted a solid walk total of 58. Encarnación has hit at least 32 homers in each of his last eight seasons, and if he’s healthy, should continue to produce similar numbers. Despite a relatively low average last year versus righties (.244), he still provided a respectable .332 OBP and .510 SP.

(5) Yoán Moncada — 3B. The 24-year-old enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2019, yet it seems like he’s merely scratching the surface. All he did last year was slash .315/.367/.548 with 34 doubles and 25 homers, despite missing 30 games due to injuries. Moncada’s numbers were even better versus righties (.322/.377/.569), and he should provide ample protection for Jiménez and Encarnacón in this lineup. He’s also stolen double-digit bases in each of his first two seasons, and he could easily be one of four regulars to do so in 2020. 

(6) José Abreu —1B. It just makes more sense to place Eloy in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Abreu’s still no slouch, as his .284/.330/.503 slash line with 72 extra-base hits and 126 RBI last year attest. However, his slash line versus righties was relatively weak in 2019 (.257/.298/.472) so it actually makes sense to drop him to sixth in the lineup. He should still receive plenty of RBI opportunities with the bats in front of him.   

(7) Luis Robert — CF. By the end of the year, Robert could very well spend time at every single lineup position. He clearly has the speed to be a leadoff hitter, as he swiped 36 bases in an abbreviated minor league season in 2019. He’s also got massive power potential, as displayed by his 32 homers (16 of which came in just 47 games, with half hit in Birmingham where bats often go to die). Robert also posted lofty slash lines against righties and southpaws alike, but I like giving him a little left-handed protection with Nomar Mazara batting behind him for now. Versus righties in the minors last year, all Robert did was slash .315/.373/.580. The only concern with Robert offensively is his pitch selection, as he walked just 28 times as opposed to 129 strikeouts last year.

(8) Nomar Mazara — RF. Mazara’s provided consistently decent yet uninspiring offensive numbers with Texas during each of the last four seasons. Perhaps he was a victim of high expectations? He was regularly ranked among MLB’s Top 50 prospects prior to his 2016 Rangers debut, and he was asked to play against both righties and lefties. Certainly, his numbers versus southpaws last year left much to be desired (.220/.252/394), but he still provided quality numbers when facing righthanders (.288/.344/.500). Last year, he clubbed 27 doubles and 19 homers, which is a massive upgrade from what the White Sox ran out in right field. 

(9) Tim Anderson — SS. I know what you’re thinking: The league’s batting champ hits ninth? But I like Tim here for two reasons. The first is that he has well-chronicled on-base deficiencies, so if he’s not hitting, he’s not on base; secondly, he’d basically serve as a second leadoff man when the lineup turns over. Anderson, surprisingly, enjoyed a better season versus righties than when opposing southpaws, with a .339/.360/.514. Of course, this was aided by a perhaps fluky .399 BABIP. I’m expecting some drop-off here, perhaps to a .349 BABIP which would be squarely between Anderson’s 2018 and 2019 numbers. With Madrigal’s ability to handle the bat, expect more stolen bases and hit-and-run opportunities with Anderson in this spot in the lineup. Of course, if Madrigal gets off to a slow start, Anderson and Madrigal could easily be switched. 

Additional notes: In 29 games for Charlotte last year, Madrigal slashed .331/.398/.424 with 13 walks and just five strikeouts; thus, it’s hard for me to believe he truly won’t be MLB-ready to begin the 2020 season. It’s difficult to believe they’d hold him down for contractual purposes, since the White Sox clearly plan on being in a close race with Cleveland and Minnesota as evidenced especially by the Encarnacion signing. If Madrigal doesn’t make the trip north for Opening Day, however, Danny Mendick would likely slot to the ninth spot while Anderson would shift to leadoff. It’s easy to like the versatility of this lineup, and the bench will feature numerous defense and pinch-running options with Adam Engel, Leury García and Danny Mendick. James McCann also provides leadership and defensive skills (excluding framing) as the backup catcher, and would be valuable as a No. 8 or 9 hitter in this lineup (.265/.311/.448 in 2019 vs. righties). Also, with just three lefty bats in this lineup, I spread those hitters three batters apart from each other to make it more difficult for opponents to use their best bullpen southpaws against them.   

Lineup vs. lefties

(1) Nick Madrigal — 2B. Despite better slugging numbers, his numbers dropped to more pedestrian levels against southpaws in 2019, as he slashed a still-respectable .278/.338/.431. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him better those numbers, even while donning a major league uniform, in 2020.

(2) Yoán Moncada — 3B. Moncada enjoyed a much-improved 2019, and nowhere was this more evident than when opposing southpaws. In 2018 against lefties, he slashed just .209/.287/.297; in 2019, he slashed .299/.345/.500. I’ve switched Grandal and Moncada vs. lefties, because Grandal’s power numbers are significantly more impressive.

(3) José Abreu — 1B. While Abreu had his struggles against righties last year, the same can’t be said against southpaws. In 2019, he slashed an impressive .360/.418/.591 against them.

(4) Edwin Encarnación — DH. While Encarnación was solid against righties, he fared even better against southpaws last year, with a .245/.375/.594 slash line.

(5) Yasmani Grandal — C. Like Encarnación, Grandal was quite good against righties. However, when as a right-handed batter versus lefties, he performed even better, to the tune of a .258/.397/.529 slash line. This would be nice protection for Abreu and Encarnación indeed.

(6) Eloy Jiménez — LF. Jiménez’s numbers, though quite good, dropped off slightly against southpaws in 2019. That’s not to say when he was bad by any stretch (.259/.322/.459). It’s a credit to the rest of this lineup that he actually drops to sixth versus lefties.

(7) Luis Robert — CF. Robert absolutely murdered lefties last year, to the tune of .356/.386/.719. Of course, those numbers were against minor league competition, so the verdict’s still out for him in 2020. If Robert continues to mash lefties as this rate next year, he likely will move up significantly higher in the lineup.

(8) Tim Anderson — SS. I kept wavering between inserting Anderson here and the leadoff spot. The reason I have Anderson eighth is because he simply provides stronger lineup protection for Robert than would either of the next two hitters. If others disagree with this spot, I certainly wouldn’t argue. For the year, Anderson slashed .326/.351/.493, which isn’t too shabby.

(9) Leury García — RF. García is a better defensive alternative than Mazara, and has generally produced far better numbers versus southpaws throughout his career. Last year as a right-handed hitter, García slashed a respectable .311/.344/.443. While García likely won’t be a game-changer as a right-handed platoon, he’d add a little speed element (15 stolen bases) with his defense.

Additional notes: As good as the team’s lineup appears versus righties, the lineup opposing southpaws should be even more lethal. On games in which Grandal sits, the offense shouldn’t suffer much with McCann in the lineup, as he slashed .295/.372/.492 against southpaws last year. The same caveat for righties as above applies for Madrigal; if Mendick or some other player begins the year at second to open the season, Anderson could easily slot leadoff while García and the second baseman hit in the eighth and ninth roles. The lineup above features five guys with double-digit stolen bases (Madrigal, Moncada, Robert, Anderson and García) while Mendick and Engel also provide stolen base potential off the bench. 


 

Jace Fry, bullpen man of mystery

Jace Fry caption: 


Jace Fry has a high ceiling, but he hasn’t met those expectations yet.

Fry is supposed to be a candidate for high-leverage outs in important games, and his 2018 season showed he could fill that role. The ERA was not necessarily fantastic at 4.38, but Fry’s peripherals pulled the ERA up: He had a K-rate (32.7%) in the top 6% of baseball, to go along with a 2.67 FIP. Fry’s walks were not a concern, but a 9.3% BB rate was a flag for the future. No matter, a .194 batting average against helped mitigate most potential rallies. Like most left-handed pitchers, Fry was much better against lefty bats: In 2018, he had a phenomenal .408 OPS against lefties and a worse (but not awful) OPS against righties at .690. He could get both sides of the plate out and made people look silly.

Then came 2019, and though Fry’s ERA was not far off from his 2018 mark, everything else got worse. His FIP skyrocketed up to 4.90 and his strikeouts were more pedestrian (though not a bad number) — but what really bit him were walks. In just one season, Fry’s BB rate rose about 8%, to 17.1%. That walk rate was the third-worst among relievers with 30 innings pitched (out of 249 pitchers). In plain words, Fry should have been sent down to Charlotte to fix control woes.

For Fry, though his strikeout numbers did fall, an 11.13 K/9 is still very good, and he was still fantastic against lefties. He had a .193 batting average against lefties to go along with a 3.34 FIP, and none of the seven home runs he allowed came from that side of the plate. He also still had that one elite pitch, his cutter/hard slider (whatever you want to call it, even websites disagree) and that’s almost all you really need to be a good reliever. Fry’s cutter in 2019 had a .176 batting average against, 16th-best in baseball for a cutter (minimum 25 batters faced). With a minimum of 100 batters faced, Fry’s cutter showed the 15th-most average RPMs; though that is not indicative of success (Carson Fulmer was 13th), some household names with great cutters are at the top of the list, including Yu Darvish, Adam Ottavino, and Walker Buehler.

And as you can see below, Fry’s cutter is just nasty.

First let’s look macro, and then go down the ladder.

Jace Fry had a large increase in walks. His walk rate rose almost 8% in a single season, and that is really bad. Four of the five pitches Fry uses were called balls more often in 2019 than 2018. The cutter’s ball rate went up 12.8%, the curve increased by 16.7%, the four-seamer’s ball rate elevated by 4.3%, and the change was called a ball 10.9% more often than in 2018. Of those four pitches, three of them were thrown outside of the zone in 2019 more than the previous season, the cutter (4.6%), curveball (8.8%), and four-seamer (6.3%). One reason there were more balls called was because opposing hitters just stopped swinging as much outside the zone. The total chase rate against Fry fell about 6% from 2018.

However, oddly enough, of the five pitches Fry uses, only two of them saw a decrease in chase miss rate, the cutter and change, arguably his two most effective pitches. Now, the fewer swings and misses from the cutter outside the zone is big for the walk rate because 61.1% of the cutters he threw were outside of the zone. The curve, sinker, and four-seamer all had their chase miss rate increase — and sometimes it was a huge increase — so batters were not necessarily swinging less because Fry’s pitches were worse or less deceiving. In fact, overall, Fry had more swing-and-misses outside the zone in 2019 than in 2018, but his walks still increased an almost unbelievable amount. So Fry’s problem wasn’t necessarily how good his stuff was. It was his command.

savant
Baseball Savant, attack zones 1-39.

For the following stats, refer to the heat map outline above for a better picture of Fry’s pitch placement. From 2018 to 2019, Fry had an increase in pitches that are categorized as solely waste pitches, as well as chase and waste pitches. He had a .6% increase in waste pitches and an increase of 3.4% in chase and waste pitches; so Fry was just missing his sweet zone for strikes more often in 2019. While there was an increase in pitches further away from the strike zone, there were also fewer strikes. On waste pitches, Fry’s strike rate fell about 1%. On waste and chase pitches, that strike rate fell about 3%, so he was throwing more pitches that looked like ball and getting fewer strikes on them.

So it was a command problem, although, Fry’s curve and sinker also did not help much when contact was made.

Overall, batters hit .529 against Fry’s curve and .367 against his sinker. The problem with relievers though, is that even entire season’s worth of data is a small sample. Batters had a .313 BABIP against Fry’s curve in 2018, which skyrocketed up to .583 in 2019. That sounds a little lucky, until you look at the batted-ball data. Per FanGraphs, batters had a 42.9% line drive rate against the curve, a 30% increase from 2018, and just a 35.7% ground ball rate, a 30% decrease. So sure, the BABIP was high, but the quality of contact against Fry was very good.

For the sinker, it is even more befuddling. The BABIP against Fry’s sinker increased from .217 in 2018 to .393 in 2019; at first glance it looks like Fry just got very unlucky, and this time, the batted-ball data seems to reveal the same thing. The ground ball rate increased 39.6% in 2019 to a whopping 71.4%, so the sinker was doing its job in getting ground balls. They just did not turn into outs at the same rate as Fry’s 2018 sinker, even though a far higher percentage were in the air.

What this basically comes down to for Fry is that he has a career 4.94 ERA and has shown great potential. His cutter is elite, and he has good enough secondary pitches to get batters out on both sides of the plate. This was all a roundabout way of saying, yeah, Fry seems like he should be a really good reliever. He has the ability to use five pitches and has that one pitch great relievers always seem to have — but he hasn’t put it together. In 2019, Fry’s curve and sinker went wrong, and his command faltered. Maybe he should continue to utilize less of his curve and sinker, but 2019 could have been a statistical anomaly as well with opposing hitter success against those two pitches because when those pitches are on, they’re on.

Thus, Jace Fry is still a man of mystery.

But while all that’s well and good, 2018 was pretty tight and 2019 war rough, it’s now or never for Fry because with the White Sox are turning the page toward contention without Fry actually producing a truly sound season (just a peripherally good one). Will Fry take the next step or build the consistency it seemed he was on track for after 2018, or was 2019 Fry the real one, the one that threw more pitches way outside the zone and was almost a detriment to the club when he faced right-handed hitters?

We are going to find out quickly, because a team in contention cannot deploy an unsteady pitcher in critical situations.

Backup backstop: McCann vs. Collins

Zack attack: For Collins, even in a limited platoon role, the time is now. (Tom Borowski/South Side Hit Pen)


James McCann was a bit of a renaissance man for the 2019 Chicago White Sox. Signed as an afterthought for $2 million in advance of another rebuilding season, not much was expected of the former Tigers’ backstop. But all the 6´3´´, 225-pounder proceeded to do was post a 2.3 fWAR season and play in his first All-Star Game. McCann hit .273/.328/.460 with a 109 wRC+ and smacked 18 homers in 118 contests.

McCann was especially good against southpaws last year, posting a stellar wRC+ of 132. The catcher’s .197 ISO was staggering, and contributed a great deal to his career-best campaign. The former second round pick handled his business positively in Chicago and was well-regarded in a leadership role, to the extent that starting pitcher Lucas Giolito credited his new teammate with much of his success in 2019.

Pitch framing is a weakness for McCann, and defense overall isn’t considered to be a strong suit of his. He’s a respected game-caller and adept at throwing out runners while being very studious regarding the planning and preparation that goes into being a catcher.

The second half of 2019 was rough for McCann, and he was much better vs lefties overall. Against righties in 2019, James posted a league-average mark of 100 with his wRC+ and he posted a .319 wOBA. In an ideal situation, McCann would face primarily southpaws in 2020.

Crowded roster

The decision-makers in the front office made a concerted effort this offseason to add talent to the roster for the 2020 season. The rebuild is over, and it’s time to compete for a Central Division title. José Abreu is slated to return to the south side for his seventh season in black and white. Abreu has hit 179 career homers and has always been very successful against left-handed pitching in general.

Abreu signed a three-year contract extension with the White Sox worth $50 million in late November. The deal was met with some consternation due to the anticipated regression of the player, in spite of his gaudy home run and RBI totals in 2019. The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cuban has regressed, and will likely continue to do so. That regression will occur in a comfortable place, though, and hitting southpaws is still something that should be a primary focus.

Playing in 159 games last year, Abreu posted a 117 wRC+ even though his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate keeps falling. The first baseman was a league average offensive performer (100 wRC+) vs righties, and some scheduled days off in the future could best serve all parties. Abreu must be in the lineup vs lefties, however. In 2019, he murdered lefthanders to the tune of a .360/.418/.591 slash line with a 168 wRC+ and 24 homers.

Yasmani Grandal was given the largest free agent contract in the history of the organization back in November as well. The former first-rounder out of Miami is one of the best catchers in baseball. The switch-hitter played in 153 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019, and hit .246/.380/.468 with 28 homers. Yaz posted a 121 wRC+ with a 17% walk rate as well. The 31-year-old was exceptional against lefties, though. While Grandal posted very strong numbers against right-handed pitching (114 wRC+), he was even better (138 wRC+) when he turned around and hit from the right side.

With Grandal as the biggest outside addition to the club, playing time didn’t appear to be an issue for James McCann. His numbers against lefties indicated a role could be carved out in which he split some time at designated hitter in addition to catcher with the newly acquired Grandal. But then …

Parrot party

The White Sox signed 37-year-old slugger Edwin Encarnación in early January. The deal is for one year with a club option for 2021, and the move further signifies a win-now attitude. Encarnación is primarily a designated hitter at this stage of his career, but he could do some moonlighting at first base. In 109 games with the Yankees and Mariners in 2019, he clubbed .244/.344/.531 with 34 home runs while posting a 129 wRC+ and .362 wOBA.

Encarnación has 414 career homers, and the long ball is still a primary focus of his offensive profile. Edwin walked at a 12% clip last year, and while he posted a strong 121 wRC+ vs right handed pitching, he was death to lefties. The slugger hit .245/.375/.594 (.969 OPS) with a .396 wOBA vs southpaws. Encarnación posted a 152 wRC+ vs lefties in 2019. He was signed to play, and he should be in the lineup almost every day. Days off could come against tough righties, but it’s imperative that EE be available to mash against most pitchers.

Zack Collins … left out?

Another name in the 26-man roster mix for the White Sox is former top draft pick Zack Collins. Collins has many detractors, and his style of play wouldn’t be described as aesthetically pleasing — he was billed as a three-true-outcomes performer with defensive questions, after all. He can also play some first base and designated hitter, and has struggled vs lefties throughout his minor league career.

Collins will be 25 years old in February and has nothing to prove at the minor league level. Last year with the Charlotte Knights, the lefty slugger batted .282/.403/.548 with a 140 wRC+ in 88 games. Zack hit 19 homers and posted a .401 wOBA. He possesses plus raw power and plate discipline, and has displayed it across every minor league level: In 2017 at Winston-Salem, Collins posted a 130 wRC+. With the Birmingham Barons in 2018, his wRC+ was 130 in one of the strongest leagues in the minors.

Collins struggled in a small major league sample in 2019 when playing time was quite sparse. In 102 trips to the plate, he posted a 77 wRC+ over the course of 27 games. He showed off some of the plus power to go with a 14% walk rate and a .219 ISO. Collins’ eventual role in the big leagues might be as a part-time player, one who walks and hits for power against right-handed pitching.

Collins vs. McCann

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that McCann’s good name has come up frequently in trade rumors this offseason. He’s a functional piece on a roster, and perfectly suited to be a member of a catching platoon. He no longer fits ideally on the White Sox roster, however. McCann is locked in for 2020 at $5.4 million, which looks tenable on the surface but could make him a difficult trade piece due to his shortcomings. What the White Sox would even look for as a trade return is very debatable.

It will likely be seen as heresy to suggest that Collins fits more appropriately on a winning roster than McCann in this particular case, but orthodoxy should be challenged this time around. McCann would benefit from playing against left-handed pitchers most often, but it’s tough to justify ceding playing time to him at the expense of Encarnación, Abreu and Grandal. That trio of mashers shouldn’t be sitting against lefties just so McCann can see more time.

Collins on the other hand, could serve a purpose and fill an actual need. If proven that he’s playable behind the dish, his left-handed bat could be a benefit for the club. On days when Collins catches, Grandal could stay in the lineup with one of Abreu or Encarnación sitting against a right-handed starter. On the other hand McCann is a solid all-around player, and he needs time as a regular in advance of his first foray into real free agency after this season.

The White Sox may choose to keep all three players, especially with the new roster rules in place that make keeping three catchers much easier. Injuries occur, but with McCann on a one-year deal with a role that’s rendered him superfluous, a trade to a better situation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in the near future.

McCann is a professional and would likely accept any role provided to him, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s not thrilled with the situation. McCann is no longer scheduled to attend SoxFest this upcoming weekend, and he will likely be involved in trade rumors for catching needy teams into spring training.

 

 

Manager Rumor Mill: Garbage Can Edition

Take out the trash: A recommendation for the replacement 2017 MVP.


garbage can

Cheaters never prosper. Or get to keep their jobs, apparently. In the ongoing fallout from the Astros 2017 garbage can heist, we saw A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora, and Carlos Beltrán join the ranks of unemployed baseball managers (Beltrán, impressively, without making it to Opening Day). In the spirit of our AL and NL scorecards last October, I present a special edition. Let’s meet some candidates, and speculate wildly.


Houston Astros

2019 Record: 107-55
First Place, AL West
Former manager: A.J. Hinch (570-452*; .588)
*101-61 record earned while cheating in 2017

What a week. 

Astros Rumors: Considering pitchers and catchers report in less than a month, the Astros could take the quick route and promote Joe Espada (the current bench coach). He’s the current interim manager, and his name was getting kicked around when there were more vacancies (interviewing with the Cubs and Giants). The bonus here for the Astros is that Espada knows the team but didn’t join the Astros until after the 2017 season, so he wasn’t part of the sign-stealing scandal.

Buck Showalter has popped up a few times. An experienced vet would be a good choice for Houston, and tragically Joe Girardi already has a job (can he manage two teams at once?). Showalter’s been around the league, from the Yankees to the Rangers and Diamondbacks before ending up in Baltimore from 2010-18. He managed to bring the Orioles to the postseason twice — first the 2012 ALDS and then the 2014 ALCS — so he’s got the ability to manage if he has the talent (sorry, Baltimore). He’s well respected, with an overall record of 1,551-1,517, and could provide the Astros a much-needed boost as well as a “new sheriff in town” mentality.

Clint Hurdle officially retired from baseball in November, which is sad to me because I like a grizzled old character. Dusty Baker is still available, though. Coming out of this, though, I think the Astros are going to have a hard time getting someone to interview. The organization has taken big hits in the PR department, with culture, and morale.


Boston Red Sox

2019 Record: 84-78
Third Place, AL East
Former manager: Alex Cora (192-132, .593)

Given that Alex Cora was named as a primary participant in the MLB findings it’s not a surprise that the Red Sox fired him, especially while they’re still waiting for the investigation of their own sign stealing to conclude and lead to more fallout.

Red Sox Rumors: The Red Sox are in a tough spot compared to the Astros because they’re still being investigated for other cheating, meaning they don’t exactly have an Espada to fall back on at the moment. Ron Roenicke has worked with Cora as bench coach for the last two seasons, but we don’t know where he falls in the 2018 investigation.

Jason Varitek is a name getting kicked around a lot, but I don’t see the Red Sox making a player without experience their manager — they’re not the Mets or the Cubs. Oh, and speaking of the Mets …


New York Mets

2019 record 86-76
Third Place, NL East
Former Managers: Mickey Callaway (163-161, .503); Carlos Beltrán (0-0)

Not ones to be left out of any excitement, the Mets fired Carlos Beltrán – who was the only player named in the Astros investigation. My favorite part is the fact that MLB didn’t pressure the Mets to fire Beltrán, but the team elected to do it all on their own. I love the Mets, they’re my “other” team, but after these last few seasons (and offseasons) of drama they really need to just change their names to the New York Messy Bitches.

Mets Rumors: I dunno … is Mr. Met available?

mr met
Wikipedia

Great Expectations, out of a Bleak House

A funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs: Minnesota brought in a Bringer of Rain. (@680TheFan)


A funny thing happened on the way to the Chicago White Sox winning the Central Division in 2020: The Minnesota Twins went out and signed big-hitting third baseman Josh Donaldson to a mega-deal bigger than any individual deal the White Sox have ever shelled out. 

The resulting storm on social media led me to think that many Sox fans, while certainly excited about the prospects of the coming season, are thinking with their hearts instead of with their heads.

Let me be clear about something first: High expectations are a good thing. They help drive someone or something to work and strain to be the best. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and sometimes miracles do happen — just look at the 1969 New York Mets.

But you also need to be realistic, which is why I can’t understand the social media meltdown from some Sox fans. Even if the Twins hadn’t signed Donaldson, the Sox probably weren’t going to win the division, anyway!

The Sox won 72 games last year, and showed marked progress on a number of fronts. But to think that they could “somehow” win another 20 games to put themselves into real contention is stretching belief.

Could it happen? Sure, just look at the 1990 White Sox, who incredibly won 94 games, “Doin’ the Little Things” under manager Jeff Torborg. But remember the Western Division back then wasn’t close to being as strong as the current Central Division and the American League as a whole.

With the 2020 White Sox, you’re asking a bunch of kids to take a next leap into greatness basically overnight and asking a franchise to keep said guys healthy. If the last three seasons at both the major and minor league level have shown anything it’s that the White Sox are having serious problems in the health department, whether it’s because of bad luck or something else going on with strength and conditioning.

To me, it’s too much to think everything is going to break right for the Sox, which is one reason I advocated in a previous column getting at least two starting pitchers to help protect themselves from what is almost a certain bad injury or slump.   

Again, it’s fine to dream, and every Sox fan should certainly be doing that given the generally awful baseball the Sox have put on the field since the start of the 2007 season, but if the Sox don’t make the playoffs this year that doesn’t mean the season was a failure if they can:

  • Win at least 82 games. That means a winning season, the first since 2012. Anything over and above that is gravy.
  • Continue to develop the core group of young players.
  • Play meaningful baseball at least through August — and hopefully into September.
  • Continue to develop and emphasize all aspects of the franchise both on and off the field: advertising opportunities, season ticket sales, attendance in general, fan and media public relations, TV ratings.

Do these things, see what you can add in the offseason before the start of the 2021 campaign (if some pieces weren’t already added at the trade deadline this July), and then let’s really rock and roll.

The table should be set and ready for the White Sox. But 2020 is still probably too soon.

Friday’s arbitration deadline makes a busy week busier for the White Sox

Big payday awaits: Closer Colomé is the sole significant salary expenditure expected through the arbitration process. (@AlexanderColome)


The White Sox continue to add talent this offseason, and right-handed reliever Steve Cishek is the latest addition to the squad. The signing isn’t yet official but in short order, the organization’s expenditures over the course of this offseason will surpass $200 million in total outlay. With a reported agreement for designated hitter Edwin Encarnación also on the precipice of becoming official, it could be a busy week of roster juggling for the franchise.

Friday is the deadline for clubs to reach agreement with arbitration-eligible players. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox has been involved in trade discussions in advance of his penultimate year of arbitration, and he’s expected to set a record for salary among players yet to reach free agency. Kris Bryant‘s situation with the Chicago Cubs is tenuous as well, due partly to the effects of the salary arbitration process. While the White Sox won’t be the focus across the sport in this regard, the club has its own decisions to make by Friday’s exchange date.

As an organization, the White Sox generally like to settle on a number rather than exchanging figures to be glossed over by an arbitrator. The franchise went many years without an arbitration fight, prior to Avisaíl García and Yolmer Sánchez heading down the process in recent years.

This year, six players are eligible to receive salary arbitration from the club.

Catcher James McCann agreed to a $5.4 million contract with the club early in December, and he’s signed on for his final season before he reaches unrestricted free agency. More of these deals should become official in the coming days. Pitchers Alex Colomé, Evan Marshall and Carlos Rodón along with outfielders Leury García and Nomar Mazara are the arbitration-eligible players on the White Sox. Fighting their own players is atypical to the modus operandi employed by the organization, so it’s expected that the five players will settle before the deadline.

The fine folks at MLB Trade Rumors do a commendable job of predicting arbitration raises annually and they see Colomé and Marshall getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.3 million and $1.3 million, respectively.

Rodón is in a tricky situation while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery as well, earning $4.2 million last year for just 34 ⅔ innings. Rodón is projected to receive $4.5 million for the 2020 season, in his third year of salary arbitration as a Super Two player.

García, a 28-year-old superutility player, earned $1.55 million last season; because he plays multiple positions for the White Sox, he’s slated to turn his 1.3 fWAR season into a projected $4 million commitment.

Outfielder Mazara is expected to receive a salary bump as well. The 24-year-old has been a bit of an enigma early on in his career. Regarded as one of the best prospects in the game on his way to the Rangers from the minor leagues, Nomar hasn’t lived up to his high billing. The lefty slugger earned $3.3 million in 2019; while struggling mightily vs left-handed pitching throughout his career, Mazara posted an .844 OPS with a 110 wRC+ vs RHP in 2019. He’s expected to receive $5.7 million for 2020.


The 2020 payroll, in review

Jerry Reinsdorf has opened his wallet this offseason, upping overall payroll from some uncommon recent lows. In 2019, the White Sox were 26th in baseball with a total payroll of $91,371,201. The organization currently has leaped to 16th in  payroll and is expected to spend between $125-$130 million in player salary for this upcoming season.

It can be astutely argued that they haven’t gone far enough, but the increase is a marked improvement that has quelled some recent criticism of the front office. The first addition to the 2020 club was catcher Yasmani Grandal back in November. The 31-year-old signed a four-year contract worth $73 million, so the switch-hitting backstop will earn $18.25 million next season.

The front office followed up the contract with a new deal for first baseman José Abreu. Abreu signed a three-year, $50 million contract extension with the team and he’ll earn $12.6 million against the payroll in 2020.

The next two signings slotted right into the starting rotation. First, Gio González signed a one-year contract that will pay him $4.5 million. And the biggest addition on the pitching front came days later, when the White Sox inked veteran southpaw Dallas Keuchel. The 32-year-old will earn $55.5 million over the course of his three-year commitment with the White Sox, and $18 million in 2020.

With the agreements and the trade for Mazara at December’s winter meetings, the front office effectively completed their shopping list. The decision-makers landed two starting pitchers, a right fielder and found some offensive pop from the left side. While the designated shopping list was all checked off, the organization remained motivated to add talent to the 2020 club. Edwin Encarnación is expected to make $11 million next season as the team’s primary designated hitter. Better production in that spot was another priority of general manager Rick Hahn.

And most recently, even the bullpen got a tuneup:

The 33-year-old reliever is the latest addition in Chicago. He’ll earn $5.25 million in 2020 and with an option year, could also be around for multiple seasons.

While five free agents have been added to the team, one of the bigger moves of the offseason was struck with a player already in the organization. Luis Robert will be the opening day center fielder after signing an extension that will keep him in Chicago for the next eight years.

Before their offseason signing frenzy, the White Sox had committed just $14.8 million to three players: Shortstop Tim Anderson, outfielder Eloy Jiménez and reliever Kelvin Herrera were the only members of the team not under arbitration or pre-arb status. Much has been done since that time, giving the roster a radically different look by Opening Day. While the heavy lifting has likely been consummated, another reliever, right-handed hitting outfielder or utility infielder could still be added to the mix, in addition to a bevy of non-roster invitees.

The current White Sox payroll according to Spotrac.com is $119.2 million. Depending on what else the organization decides to add before spring training, the official 2020 payroll should be in the $130 million range. The White Sox are projected to be 16th in baseball, and there’s no reason they can’t ascend into the 11-15 range on an annual basis, as the Washington Nationals are currently 10th in baseball with a total hovering around $152 million.

The White Sox don’t seem likely to threaten the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold anytime soon, and it’s not necessary for them to do so. The payroll should increase continually, right along with the expectations of the team. And nobody will care what the payroll is as long as the team wins division titles and finds a way to keep their own over this next decade.